Morals or Money? Obama’s Ethical and Economic Reasons to End LGBTQ Discrimination

On July 21, President Obama signed an Executive Order that expanded LGBTQ workplace protection, specifically changing any clauses from the original executive that read “sexual orientation” to “sexual orientation and gender identity.” This is major, you guys. Not only will this amendment explicitly protect people whose gender identities range all along (and outside of) the spectrum, it also outlaws companies that contract with the United States government from discriminating against the LGBTQ community.

As a queer woman, my feminist ideology is 100% “yes-homo,” so I can’t help but connect the President’s latest social-justice move with the Hobby Lobby ridiculousness. I mean, this is how America is supposed to work, right? The Supreme Court does a dumb thing, the Oval Office tempers that show of stupidity by countering with a new law (Congress, of course, does nothing). Checks and balances, you know?

My feminist economist brain found some of Obama’s remarks preceding the signing suspiciously… feminist economist, actually. The sixth sentence of his statement reads: “And now, thanks to your passionate advocacy and the irrefutable rightness of your cause, our government — government of the people, by the people, and for the people — will become just a little bit fairer.” Politicians often employ morality as a reason (or excuse) to explain their agendas, and it usually sounds like pandering. But, looking at this from a feminist economist perspective, I think I can twist Obama’s morality into a slightly different light.

One of the core tenets of feminism (and, as I believe, socialist feminism) is that we do not measure economic success exclusively by monetary and numeric means. Numbers aren’t everything, even to economists – sometimes, we have to step back and ask more abstract questions, and work harder to measure the quality of life of the people we are trying to help by passing new laws, writing articles, holding protests, and lobbying. Allowing capital accumulation to dictate the correctness of policy is a core tenet of capitalism; employing morality (or some other standard of life) as the basis by which we measure economic success is the basis of socialist feminism and contemporary feminist economics. As Obama said in his speech, “It doesn’t make much sense, but today in America, millions of our fellow citizens wake up and go to work with the awareness that they could lose their job, not because of anything they do or fail to do, but because of who they are —  lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.  And that’s wrong.  We’re here to do what we can to make it right — to bend that arc of justice just a little bit in a better direction.” Obama measures success by the amount of personal security he can ensure for his constituents – and when drafting legislation that affects the national economy, I think it’s impressive to speak to the human rights side of the issue first and foremost. It also precisely fits the formula for contemporary feminist (socialist) economics that I laid out in an article I wrote last month.

But, Obama didn’t just go for the mushy-gushy stuff – he also noted, a few more minutes into his speech, that “Equality in the workplace is not only the right thing to do, it turns out to be good business.  That’s why a majority of Fortune 500 companies already have nondiscrimination policies in place.  It is not just about doing the right thing — it’s also about attracting and retaining the best talent.  And there are several business leaders who are here today who will attest to that.”

Business opposition to social reform is often discussed in political economy, as is business’ power to curb social reform; but it is possible that, when it serves business interests to push for social rights, they will do so. Allow the heterodox economists to break it down for you.

Hacker and Pierson’s article “Social Policy and Business Power” and Walter Korpi’s “Power Resources and Employer-Centered Approaches” articles can help explicate the process of businesses using their influence to promote social change. Essentially, businesses are just using their structural power to further their own preferences, as they typically do – but they are now the “consentors” to social change, rather than the antagonists. Hacker and Pierson state that, first and foremost, firms “face a very clear incentive structure: they must strive to maximize profits” (Hacker & Pierson, 2002) – thus, their first order preference will always be to makes as much money as possible. Control of the labor market is a tool that firms try to make use of in order to create this profit; which is why firms usually block social reform, because they must try to commodify the worker.

However, in this case, having discriminatory control over the labor market would directly compromise firms’ first order preference of amassing capital. Thus, private firms have exercised their structural power, which exists “where citizens can bring their concerns to bear on politicians, [and thus] fear of economic deterioration resulting from declining investment is likely to generate severe pressure on public policy makers. The prospect of a public backlash gives policy makers a strong incentive to maintain the profitability of private investment. This power is structural because the pressure to protect business interests is generated automatically and apolitically” (Hacker & Pierson). The private firms who were represented in Obama’s audience are using structural power to achieve a very specific strategic accommodation. Generally, firms would be in favor of a bill that gives them more control over whom they hire and fire; but firms are also able to read “the writing on the wall,” so to speak. Discrimination is bad for business.

So, for me, Obama has done it all: he’s given me a speech that I can analyze with heterodox, feminist, and queer lenses, couched with rhetoric (like “bipartisan” and “addressing [this] injustice for every American”) that we are all familiar with. Was it Obama’s intention to draw any of these terms to himself? Probably not. Trust me, no president of the United States can adhere to heterodox economics, not by any stretch of the imagination (but he seems to be a pretty decent feminist! And a pretty solid queer-ally!). But it sure makes me happy to see national-level legislature worthy of such an analysis!


Categories: Law, Policy, and Government, Legislation, The Dismal Discipline, These United States

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